Cinema heightens and emphasizes, so that in the right hands it can transform the brutality of a death into an object of art. However, the medium still has to uphold the aesthetic precision of formal art. For every pastel rich portrait of murder like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, there are clumsily shot and purposeless gruesome films, whose purpose appears only to titillate the viewer with staged violence. Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother clearly falls in the Suspiria category. The theme of the movie, solitude, is played out in both the cinematography and the nihilistic story.
The film is in love with its gruesomeness much in the same way it favors its beautiful, but profoundly disturbed protagonist/antagonist Francisca (Kiki Magalhaes). The initial shot of the film is behind the shoulder of a Semi truck driver. The camera looks out at the highway, a flannel clad shoulder steers the truck. Coming into view is the figure of a woman, her long hair and dangling dress the only identifying marker. The truck literally brings the viewer into the story, the radio playing a irony drenched country song called, The Murder of the Lawson Family. The figure teeters as if she may fall. The truck blows its horn, trying to dissuade the figure from getting in ‘our’ way, but the woman falls at hearing the sound, slipping over the line of the highway, collapsing into the truck driver’s lane and bringing us into the movie. The truck driver pulls over and runs towards the figure. The driver is a call back to the unfortunate driver in Toby Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Who are these unfortunate truck driver’s who keep running into atrocities? Maybe they’ve taken the place of the traveling salesman, moving about the country and discovering strange pockets of murder and mayhem in the rural United States. The first shot tantalizingly sets up the rest of the film, exploring the thematic concerns. First shots are totemic in nature, giving us a symbolic bedrock to work through the narrative to come. The film then flashes back to a young Francisca with her mother, a former surgeon in her home country, now living on a farm. The film has a scene design both anachronistic and one that belies time.
Many years later Francisca discovers her father’s body in the small farmhouse. Francisca grieves, shambling around the house, dressing up the corpse, bathing it in the same tub her mother was killed in. The narrative moves slowly with a droning sense of loss. We find the drifter is still alive, chained to the barn floor. Only now he wears bandages over his eyes and groans and gurgles, stitch marks giving a loose indication of what’s happened. For a movie that is about the lengths a lonely demented young woman will go for a family, the body horror element is an emblem for the bleak, soul crushing loneliness that afflicts the protagonist/villain of Franciscca internally. For many murders, she is taciturn, neither furious or gleeful, murdering with a cold essentialist logic more in line with Hal 3000 than Jason Voorhees. Her only admission to enjoying the act of murder is parroting the drifter’s words back to him, saying killing people makes her feel fantastic. The only sour note, one’s that seem to disrupt the sensibilities of the gruesome story, is the suggestion that Francisca is eating what she kills. While there’s certain logic to her actions, after all she lives on a farm where animals are slaughtered, along with her mother’s familiarity with anatomy, the suggestion interrupts her struggle and appears bent on shocking in a more traditional way.
The film has a strange matrix of connection, a place where Francisca is simultaneously the villain and victim. That’s why her admission that killing made her feel great appears disjointed from the rest of the movie. The story isn’t about joy, gruesome or otherwise. Moments of intimacy are never celebratory but merely an interlude between desperation and horror. Acquiring a lover brings little relief to the oppressive loneliness Francisca feels. An unspoken aspect of the movie is how male violence pushes the levers of the story, creating Francisca’s crushing loneliness and her violent reaction. The film is predicated on the actions of the violent drifter, the taciturn drunken father, and by the conclusion the group of policemen invading the house. Even the opening of the film, with the truckdriver comforting the disfigured woman is prelude to the drifter’s violent rages. Noting this pattern, Francisca controls the violence of others with her own homicidal tendencies. Her need to be a mother, a doting parent who controls the actions of those she cares for is also an allusion to male power within the film.
Similar to her father’s stoic brutality or the drifter who threatens the child Francisca and her mother, love is about control. Perhaps the most horrific moment in the film is Francisca luring a mother and infant back to her farmhouse. There’s a meticulous efficiency to how she captures mother and baby, luring the mother inside the house and then slowly disabling her. Francisca sits on her bed, lifting the child in the air with a radiant smile painted on her usually stoic face as the mother, a knife sticking out of her back crawls towards them both. While the film jumps ahead into Francisca’s salad years with her new child, the focus of the latter section is the mother who like the drifter is bound in the barn, eyes sewn shut, her vocal chords. She’s a shambling figure in chains, what would be a ghastly scare in other movies is sympathetic one here. Not only is the mother bound, blind, and voiceless, but her appearance is frightening to her now adolescent little boy. The chains that bind her and her blunted ability to interpret the world makes her monstrous, not a human being at all, merely a shambling ghost, something that once lived but is too grotesque to consider truly alive. The child calls her a monster, fleeing from the barn. The mother shambles forward at the sound of his voice, following his footsteps. The scene is more sad than horrifying, the subversion of all familial relation, we see the blind and voiceless mother searching in the dark of the pestilent barn, searching for her stolen child. The pain in this comes not in that she can’t find him, but that he refuses to be found, that he looks on the shrouded face of his mother and recognizes only the monstrous.
The mother’s escape from the barn ratchets up tension in the slow burn of the movie. Knowing the mother has escaped, the camera watches from the window of the house, identifying us with the child as Francisca walks into the still frame of the shot like a figure suddenly crossing into a still life. She disappears into the doorway of the barn and suddenly a scream breaks through the silence. The final scenes: Francisca digging up her mother’s bones and cradling them, followed by the police crashing into the farmhouse and Francisca and the child cradling each other, offers a bleak inevitable ending to a film about solitude and desperate longing for familial connection. The clap of a gunshot ends the movie, offering more death and violence to interrupt Francisca’s grasp towards familial love.
Titles are always important to what a film wants to emphasize thematically. The Eyes of My Mother parodies the idea that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but also, places them as dead possessions, emblematic coins of violence and control. In this instance, the eyes represent occlusion rather than insight, control by violence rather than empathy. The eyes of the title are surgical constructs, nodes of power that can be plucked out or sewn closed, to ensure the victim must rely on Francisca as mother. The ugly ending of the film offers us a character who is passionate and dispassionate, maternal and yet steeped and consecrated by male violence. The film gives us the natural conclusion to a family shaped and controlled by violence and how a virulent form of maternity, steeped in objectification mutates into destruction. The beautiful is undercut with the brutal, love with withering control. Francisca longs for a family and because of this blinds every avenue that might give her what she desires. The film gives us an analog to our own cultural moment where sight unleashes the oblique hunger in ourselves for connection, killing everything we love with our corrosive attention.